The quiet street in a leafy neighborhood on the outskirts of Prague where I have been living since I was born is an unlikely vantage point from which to watch history unfold, yet it is no stranger to epoch-making events. For some reason, they always take place on August 21st. It was in the dawn of that day 43 years ago when a friend woke us on the telephone with the news that the Soviet army had just invaded our country. For the next couple of hours, my sister and I stood hypnotized by the window watching a slow movie of four Antonov heavy transport aircraft making an approach across the horizon to the Prague airport a few miles to the north. There were always four—whenever the plane closest to the landing disappeared from view on the left, another one entered the picture on the right. It took a while to transport the half a million soldiers who made up the occupying army, and even the much smaller number that was airlifted in.
In the morning, the protest posters and signs began to spring up all over the street. One of them read: “The traitor Kolder lives at number 38.” Kolder was one of the members of the politburo of the Czechoslovak communist party who allegedly signed the letter of invitation of the “brotherly” troops, which served as an extremely thin pretext for the Soviet aggression. It was his good luck that in fact he lived at number 138. Number 38 was ours—and it took some time to remove the stones from our garden and repair the glazing. Nice piece of disinformation if I have ever seen one.
Since then, nothing much has happened in the street until Sunday, when I noticed on my way home a couple of police cars making a conspicuous presence in front of a house two hundred yards down the road. It is true that the schoolmate who used to live in that house had been notorious for being able to swallow a live frog, but even then this level of security presence would seem disproportionate. Moreover, he moved away a long time ago. The house now has a flagpole in the garden and a plate on the gate, which reads “The People’s Bureau of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.” Experienced diplomat that I am, I read it to mean a Libyan consulate, perhaps a consulate general, and I am beginning to see the light.
And surely, Monday morning there were three police cars in front of the house and a new flag hanging from the flagpole. There were also some people in the garden making a small fire of what looked like the old flag. There was also a statement on the wires by the Libyan chargé d’affaires in Prague: “We declare that we will continue in representing our fatherland in the Czech Republic,” a nice example of dedication to one’s chosen profession. Just as long as no one puts up a sign saying “Qaddafi’s goons live at number 38.”